East Legon Past Forward

100 Years of Abotsiman
Godwin Cheung

In East Legon, the value and attitude by which the Abotsiman people view their estates have exhibited drastic permutations over the last century. Consequently, notions of boundaries, public spaces, and culture of the Abotsiman settlement have evolved over time towards an ever more fragmented community.

When the first Abotsiman settlers arrived in East Legon as early as the 1850s, they found themselves on a piece of barren land teeming with lush bushes and trees. The Kenkey House was the first mud construction erected in the region for the family from La. This family and subsequent settlers relied on agriculture as their primary activity and source of food while the community steadily grew in numbers. 

By the late 1800s, however, the idea of land ownership within the settlement began to intensify as British and American soldiers raided the farms. Powerless against the Western military, the chief began allocating his territory to his close relatives from La for better control and protection. Over the following decades, dozens of mud houses were built across the territory. A handful were built in the form of courtyard houses, compounds where an entire family of ten could reside; while others were organized in ethnic clusters and formed public courtyards around the trees, which provided natural shade for all kinds of outdoor activities, such as laundry, cooking, and gatherings. As the community grew, zones such as village centers and football fields were also established.

After Ghana gained its independence in the 1960s, the socio-political landscapes of the country under Kwame Nkrumah brought about prosperous promises for the people. Official zoning plans from the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) imposed laws on land use/ownership and planned excessively wide roads, which began to fragment the community and implicitly hindered the sprawl of the settlement. These urban policies, although zoned as residential land use, forced the community to densify inward. Landowners became desperate and allowed renters to build timber houses within the courtyards. The plot across from the Kenkey House, which was once a public event space for celebrations and meetings, was sold to a foreign businessman who occupied the space with an unfinished villa construction for at least 15 years. The football field, where most of the people in the settlement spent their childhood, was replaced by three single-family houses, all built with unmarked fence walls that frame the streetscape. Farmland was also sold in order to make money that could be invested into other business strategies, such as setting up kiosks to produce, sell, and activate the streetscape, or in favor of working in offices elsewhere. The settlement, once the monopoly of the Abotsiman region of East Legon, slowly began to diminish, along with its history. 

The contest for properties around the Abotsiman community has increased drastically, especially over the past decade, during which the Ghanaian upper middle class have begun to see East Legon as Accra’s new hub. This tension is currently being reflected in the informal settlement, as new fence walls are being erected everyday to demarcate clear divisions between the landowners. The once intangible and fluid boundaries between the households, which allowed for an informal gathering space, have now become tangible and impenetrable thresholds. The agglomeration of all these socio-political and economical forces that are interwoven into every Abotsiman’s livelihood begs the question: What will happen next to this community? Will it be possible to protect the relics and memories of the rich Abotsiman history against the threats of modernity?